Aris Politopoulos’ Leiden Experience: “video games can provide new avenues for research”
Seven years ago, Aris Politopoulos left Athens for a master’s programme at the Leiden Faculty of Archaeology. Now he has nearly finished his PhD dissertation. Furthermore, he has become a lecturer at the research group for the Archaeology of the Near East, and co-founded a foundation that deals with video games and academia called VALUE. “We are working at the intersection between video games and archaeology.”
An easy choice
Originally, Aris came to Leiden for the Faculty’s expertise on the archaeology of the Near East. “I already knew the work of professor Akkermans, and the master’s was in English, so it was an easy choice in the end.” After finishing this master’s he decided to apply for a self-funded PhD position at the faculty.
“My PhD focuses on the capital cities of Assyria and the concept of capital creation.” The Assyrians tended to leave their old capital and move to a completely new one. “So they would build a new city from scratch, which is a very interesting phenomenon. Why would an empire get into the trouble of building completely new capital cities, and doing that several times? In my research I am studying exactly that: why they built new capitals, how were they building them, and what were the different functions of each capital.”
Next to his PhD, four years ago Aris, together with some colleagues, launched the VALUE Foundation. He grins. “I really can’t do only one thing, I do a lot of things on the side.” VALUE investigates the intersection of video games and archaeology. “We want to contribute to the general topic, because video games, being one of the largest media of our times, tend to include the past as a concept quite often. We want these experiences of the past to be fruitful and impactful” However, this is much more than a hobby. “We think that video games can provide new avenues for research as well.”
His point is proven by events. “We had a very successful conference a couple of weeks ago, with about a hundred participants and 27 very interesting presentations.” Aris and his colleagues co-edited a publication based on their previous conference, and they are publishing articles on the topic. “We are also doing public events with the game Minecraft.” Minecraft, a Lego-like game in which you can construct nearly anything is very popular with kids. “We did two very big Minecraft projects, called RoMeincraft, together with the provinces of Zuid-Holland and Gelderland.” During the events, kids were able to explore and even contribute to a Minecraft version of the Roman Limes. “For Zuid-Holland, we had about 1000 people coming to our events and received very positive feedback.”
Translating the relevance of video games to an academic audience proves to be harder, however. “One of the problems with video games is that they are not being taken too seriously.” It has been proven to be hard to get the point across and get academics to understand their value and potential.
While there are many video games that do not attempt an accurate representation of the past, some games really hit the nail on the head. Aris does not have to think hard on some examples: “Assassin’s Creed: Origins.” This game came out last year and takes place in the Egypt of Cleopatra. “The game had a historical tour in which you could learn about Egypt and its monuments. That was an excellent idea and done quite well.”
But more recent periods can also be well portrayed. “Like Valiant Hearts, which is about World War I. Although the game is not realistic in terms of graphics, it gives you a very authentic feeling.” In recent years there is also a rise in the number of ‘indigenous’ games. “Never Alone is a game made by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Alaska, and is based on traditional local stories.”
Recently, VALUE had a fruitful cooperation with the Prince Claus Fund. “We organized the Culture Arcade in the Prins Claus Fund gallery in Amsterdam, where we had eight computers and two tablets with games from around the world.” All the games were selected on the basis that they would teach the player something about the history or the culture of the country they were from. “We had games from Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Iran, and Morocco.” It illustrated that games can be used in museum spaces. “Our motive is learning through playing. That is our key concept: knowledge at play.”
After the question what Aris’ goals are in the coming years, he hesitates. “I haven’t decided yet. I would like to continue all the things that I am doing, archaeology of the Near East, teaching, and video games.” He stresses that he loves to teach. “If I could get a project that strictly combines video games and archaeology, that would be a nice end goal to reach.”
Pass on the trowel
In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Aris Politopoulos passed on the proverbial trowel to Victor Klinkenberg. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of December 2018.